Essay: Ethics of IVF

The first baby ever born via in vitro fertilization (IVF) was Louis Brown in 1978. Prior to her birth, people declared that she would be without a soul because she was conceived in a test tube. When she was born these fears were put to rest, but that did not stop the debate about the ethics of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

There has been great criticism that families and doctors who choose in vitro fertilization (IVF) are “playing God” by trying to create life where God had not ordained it. People also complain about all of the life that is created in a test tube but never gets to grow inside a mommy’s tummy. Other questions, outside of the religious realm specifically, include who should be allowed to have in vitro fertilization (IVF)? And who should decide when it is appropriate to turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF) for creating a family?

Part of the debate about the ethics of in vitro fertilization (IVF) is centered on when life begins. If one believes life begins at conception, then fertilizing any egg that will not be implanted in a uterus would be considered unethical. It would be the snuffing out of a life. This not only affects the choice of whether or not to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF), but it also affects how many embryos will be implanted.

If a doctor creates 10 embryos, but only implants four to six, what is to happen to the so-called “surplus embryos?” They have a variety of fates awaiting them. Some will die in the process of being frozen and some will die while being defrosted. Some will fall victim to the process and die due to equipment malfunction or operator error. There are some surplus embryos that will end up poured down a sink drain, left on the counter to “air die,” or even thrown into the medical waste bucket. Scientists may also use some of the surplus embryos for stem cell or other research.

There are many alternate ideas about when life begins that make the ethics of in vitro fertilization (IVF) already listed a moot point. According to, other definitions of when life begins include:

  • at the eight week point in a pregnancy, when a fetus loses its tail and gill slit structures;
  • when a fetus has a face recognizable as a human being, around 10 weeks gestation;
  • when the brain matures and first becomes conscious of itself, near the 26 week mark of a pregnancy; or
  • after birth, when the fetus is first separated from the mother.

    With the exception of the final point, all other definitions rely on an ability to accurately know how far along a pregnancy is.

Ultimately, every individual needs to explore all sides of this issue before deciding if in vitro fertilization (IVF) is right for them. They should consider the cost, when they believe life begins, and what they will do with any left over embryos.